How terrorism has affected access to our seats of democracy

Those of us fortunate to live in open democracies have certain expectations of those elected to serve us. And these expectations are reasonable. Like you have to be answerable to the electorate who gave you the opportunity to govern, and not just every four years when we go to the polls but every day. And you have to allow criticism, sometimes quite biting, of your actions and not stifle the freedom to express such criticism.

We also expect to have access to the seats of power – the assemblies, legislatures, etc. where debates on the direction of the country are held. We need to be able to see where these decisions are made and even sit in the background when political parties are doing their best to engage in the democratic process. This is what happens in a state where those in power serve at the pleasure of those that put them there, and not vice versa.

This access, however, is getting harder. The old days – remember them? (I do!) – where anyone could saunter in to the House of Commons or whatever place where elected officials gather is long gone. Instead, there are limits to who gets in and serious security posts you have to pass through first.

And we can thank the terrorists for that.

Queen’s Park – that is the Ontario provincial legislature for those not from my province in Canada –  is introducing airport-style security next year, as it becomes one of the last provinces to start making all visitors pass through metal detectors. The move is being take in the wake of two attacks in 2018: a van massacre on Yonge Street and multiple shootings on the Danforth. As the Sergeant-at-Arms Jackie Gordon noted: “I think we were very blessed to have been able to keep the Ontario legislature as open and as accessible for such a long time…It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to do that, but I think the security landscape suggests we need to consider a more robust process.” Full disclosure: I presented to Ms. Gordon and her colleagues in Toronto the day after the Danforth shootings.

That this move is being taken should not be of a surprise to anyone. We are, after all, living in the ‘age of terrorism’, the post-9/11 world where much of what we do from a security angle has been affected directly by our fear, founded or not, of terrorism. To be fair, the most spectacular terrorist attack in Canada in recent years, albeit one in which only one person died (aside from the terrorist) took place in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill, the seat of my country’s government. To say that security staff have not noticed this would be fanciful.

So yes, the Queen’s Park decision is understandable, if regrettable. The fact that neither of the attacks last year were terrorist in nature – the Danforth one was definitely not as I outlined in a forthcoming piece in The Hill Times, while the jury is still out on the Yonge Street rampage – is not that significant. Terrorism or not, there are people who see democratic institutions and the very buildings that house them as legitimate targets. This is especially true for Islamist extremists for whom democracy is an evil aberration of what they see as the only system of governance: rule of God.

This is the ‘new normal’ folks, although I am no longer sure how new it is. A lot of what we do is now seen through the prism of the ‘war on terrorism’ and that is indeed unfortunate. I am not, however, lumping the Queen’s Park decision into what I see as an overreaction. There are many more decisions and actions made with terrorism in mind that are much worse. Anyone want to weigh in on the horror that air travel has become?

My only hope is that Canadians (and Ontarians) understand the changes and learn to live with them. I also hope that Queen’s Park security staff are able to implement these new measures as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. After all we the people deserve to witness how the democratic sausage is made.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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